With American forces scheduled to leave Iraq in full by December of this year, it’s easy to forget that the country is still a very dangerous place. Overall violence has, after all, gone down significantly since Shiites and Sunnis stopped pointing their guns at one another. The 20,000 extra American troops at the heart of the sectarian battle in Baghdad didn’t hurt either.
Despite the decrease in violence, sporadic attacks occur relatively frequently in Iraq. Three suicide bombings in four days last week killed an estimated 75 people. The deadliest attack surfaced in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, where a suicide bomber detonated his belt among a line of Iraqis waiting to sign up for the local police force. A day later, fifteen more Iraqis were slain in the city of Baqubah, an area that was once labeled a focal point of the Sunni insurgency. That strike also targeted the Iraqi security apparatus, which is essentially the only branch preventing the young democracy from falling apart.
This Sunday, the latest attack killed at least fifty Shia pilgrims in the holy city of Karbala. Officials reported more than 150 injured.
There is a pattern in all of these attacks and the pattern is obvious — the Iraqi army and national police force have evolved from a complacent support for the Americans to Al Qaeda’s number one enemy in the state.
Back in 2004, when former Iraqi Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was just starting to make his name, American troops filled that role. And while this was rightly seen by the American and Iraqi governments as the most heinous and irrational violence imaginable, the tremendous damage that Zarqawi was able to inflict on the occupation gave his Al Qaeda group the image of a resistance movement which it so desperately wished to attain.
It worked for a while. Iraqis in the Sunni Triangle, who were hit hardest by American operations, were especially susceptible to the Al Qaeda resistance mantra. It only came apart after the organization executed a number of stupid decisions, one of which was the artificial creation of a pseudo Islamic state that alienated the very powerful Sunni tribes of Anbar Province.
Now, with American forces drawing down, Al Qaeda is searching for a new way to make itself relevant. Merely existing, rebuilding and keeping a low profile is not enough. The group has shown through its spectacular attacks in the past that it’s addicted to making news and drawing attention to itself (like all terrorist groups with a political agenda are). Bombing the strongest and most visible institution in the country (the Iraqi Security Forces) is the quickest way to regain some of that attention.
The new tactic will not work however. Al Qaeda may be killing people and rattling those in the Iraqi government but in the long run, its strategy boils down to murdering innocent Muslim men, women and children, tarnishing their claim to being the universal defenders of Islam against a hedonistic Western occupier. A similar strategy did nothing to boost its support during Iraq’s civil war, nor will help the organization regain some of the power it has lost since the surge. The Arab world, and Iraq in particular, will not respond positively to this message.